Small Wars Journal

Special Forces at the Lion’s Tail: Managing Risk in the Use of Special Operations Forces and the Application of Law

Tue, 10/30/2018 - 9:24am

Special Forces at the Lion’s Tail: Managing Risk in the Use of Special Operations Forces and the Application of Law


T. Nelson Collier


Just over one year ago—as is now well known—a platoon of Islamist militants ambushed a team of American and Nigerien soldiers near the Mali-Niger border and killed four Green Berets.[1]  Later that month the Weekend edition of USA Today featured the front-page headline: Africa is the new front line on terror.  What is not so well known is that, months before, the official U.S. Strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa expired with nothing to replace it.  The lapse left gaps in national strategy.  The 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) does little to fill them, and so allows undue risk.  Specifically, its ends, ways, and means toward Africa are not in balance.  The ways remain unclear.  The paradigm shift of the new way of war demands a new way of strategy (Part I), especially for the Sahel (Part II).  Complications heighten strategic risk to operations there (Part III).  The national security staff must present a clearer way ahead for U.S. policy concerning northern Africa, particularly one that mitigates the risk inherent in the interplay of the use of U.S. Special Operations Forces (USSOF) and the application of law.


Part I - The New Way of War Needs a New Way of Strategy for Success in the Sahel


In the American way of strategy, the United States endeavors to apply the instruments of national power on the whole-of-government approach to further strategic interests.[2]  The problem is that this approach enables the ends-means exercise and leaves ways unclear.  And the rhetoric worsens the problem such that “grand” strategy[3] remains no more than operational art.  With ways left unclear, risk inheres.[4]  Not least for this reason, the American way of strategy fails.[5]


With its series of compromises and expediencies, strategy toward Afghanistan and Iraq was wayward, lurching headlong in fits and starts.  No wonder.  The way of war in Afghanistan and Iraq had no grand strategy to guide it.[6]  National strategies toward the region existed, to be sure, but ways remained unclear.  The ends, ways, and means toward Africa in the 2017 NSS are not balanced because—just as with Afghanistan and Iraq—the ways remain unclear.


In November 2009, the Washington Post published a front page above-the-fold article on the Afghanistan surge, Newly Deployed Marines to Target Taliban Bastion. Days later, President Barack Obama addressed West Point graduates on the way ahead throughout the surge, saying “…our cause is just, our resolve unwavering.”  Soon after, the United States moved toward “a new way of war in Afghanistan and elsewhere in which battlefield restraint, cultural subtleties, and armed nation-building enterprises matter[ed] more than destruction of the enemy.”[7]


Obama’s clarion call in the West Point speech carried through not only in deed but in words in OIR.[8]  President Obama himself vaunted this “new way”[9] in a valedictory at the end of his second term.  In December of 2016, he addressed an audience at MacDill Air Force Base, headquarters of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM).  Counterterrorism against ISIS, as the MacDill speech went, “demonstrates a shift in how we’ve taken the fight to terrorists everywhere from South Asia to the Sahel.”

The paradigm shift of the new way—taking place in earnest in Afghanistan in 2010[10]—harks back at least to 2003, as an outgrowth of the lessons learned from the Iraq invasion.  Still, by then the new way and the old had failed (or neglected) to consider how to turn wins of war into strategic successes.[11]  If this is right,[12] then the new American way of war necessitated a new American way of strategy.


What is concerning is that the 2017 NSS stands out as another example of the failed way.  In particular, the NSS strategy toward Africa speaks of partnering with governments to end conflicts on the continent and working with African nations to promote good governance and promote the rule of law, but does not offer ways to do so.  More is needed.  And far from being only an example to illustrate a more general point, the northern Africa region is relevant in its own right as important to U.S. interests, especially the Sahel.  With comparisons made between Mali and Afghanistan and between Nigeria and Iraq, the Sahel region’s complex environment demands heightened attention.


Part II - Stability in the Sahel is an Important U.S. Interest, but the Region is Complicated


The Sahel has become increasingly relevant.  In 2013 Rudy Atallah—a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council—presented a prepared statement before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on The Growing Crisis in Africa’s Sahel Region.  Regional instability invites non-state armed groups hell-bent on imposing strict Islamic law and staging attacks throughout the region and in Europe.  Atallah asserts that “Left unaddressed, these patterns and nefarious actors will increasingly threaten the interests of the United States and her allies.”  The 2015 NSS emphasized that “Africa is rising,” and that “violent extremists fighting governments in Somalia, Nigeria, and across the Sahel all pose threats to innocent civilians, regional stability, and our national security.”  Now more than ever, stability in northern Africa is an important U.S. interest.  This is especially true with respect to Mali and Nigeria.


By 2011, Mali had become a regional paragon of a stable democracy.  Then suddenly in 2012, Malian soldiers staged a coup, which in turn drew in a power vacuum reminiscent of post-Soviet Afghanistan.[13]  According to CNN, Mali then became the next-most-likely haven for al Qaeda.  As Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in 2013, “[the United States has] a responsibility to make sure that al Qaeda does not establish a base for operations in North Africa and Mali.”[14]  The Niger ambush proves the prescience of these forebodings.


No less profound complications exist in Nigeria.  Spoken of as a “key strategic ally of the [United States],”[15]  Nigeria also remains relevant to U.S. interests, not least because it has for decades remained alongside Iraq as one of the United States’ foremost sources of foreign oil (according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration).  But other reasons support the comparison between Nigeria and Iraq, between Boko Haram and ISIS, top among those reasons being terrorist tactics and civilian death tolls.[16]  And Islamist extremist insurgency and terrorism in Nigeria will only worsen.  As Atallah stressed in his statement, since 2013, “some members of Boko Haram have turned their sights outside of the Nigerian border—another indicator of affinity for the global jihad.”[17]  Make no mistake, “helping Nigeria confront the terrorist threat of Boko Haram is in the interests of the U.S. and the international community.”[18]


Still, the case for U.S. engagement in the Sahel is not perfectly clear.[19]  What is clear is that something needs to be done.  In January 2018, the National Defense University’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies published its updated graphic on Africa’s Active Militant Islamist Groups, depicting stark concentrations of “violent events” in Mali (AQIM-affiliated fighters) and in Nigeria, at the borders of Nigeria, Niger, and Chad (Boko Haram and ISIS-affiliated fighters).  The data show that activity rose again in 2017.  After the Niger ambush, the national security staff can expect that Congress and the electorate will pay more attention to the Sahel.  A close look reveals that national strategy toward the region is already quite wayward.[20]  Complications in the region demand a clearer way ahead. 


Part III - Complications in the Sahel Heighten Strategic Risk and Demand a Clearer Strategy


The new way of war seems to necessitate the use of USSOF.  First, remember that the paradigm shift[21] of the new way had its origins in 2003.  Then, Foreign Affairs published an article by Max Boot that summarized the Iraq invasion—a harbinger of the new way—in part as having been “heavily reliant upon precision firepower, special forces, and psychological operations.”  Second, consider that “[t]he new doctrine relie[d] heavily on the use of indigenous surrogate troops, the goodwill of the local people, societal reconstruction, and the host government’s legitimacy, policies, and conduct.”[22]


But what has been true in Afghanistan[23]  and Iraq[24] has been true for Mali and Nigeria: local forces are outmatched.[25]  In Iraq and Afghanistan SOF were used to train surrogate forces, part of a task-set referred to as foreign internal defense (FID).[26]  So, “As it was in Iraq and Afghanistan,” according to former Navy SEAL and author Dick Couch, “the final assessment of whether we ultimately win or lose [in Africa] lies with our success in the conduct of [FID].”[27]  And, “[SOCOM] is the only combatant command with FID as a legislatively mandated core task.”[28]  But the use of SOF itself demands a grand strategy.[29]  And complications in the Sahel region are such that unclear ways of strategy allow undue risk, especially at the intersection of the use of USSOF and the application of law.


As the history bears out, strategy toward Iraq shifted in 2003 and in Afghanistan in 2009.  Law was there all along.  The day of Obama’s MacDill speech, Kate Brannen, a national security reporter, published a piece on the Just Security blog emphasizing some of Obama’s most salient points: In MacDill Speech, Obama Makes Case for Why Wars Should be Fought Lawfully.  Among his remarks, Obama spoke for “a nation that stands for the rule of law, and strengthen[s] the laws of war.”  As for laws of war, Obama’s talk in the West Point speech of the cause being “just” alludes to the principles of the just war tradition, made suitable for practical use in the Powell Doctrine.  Candidate George W. Bush had echoed this Powell-Doctrine principle in 2000: “When America uses force in the world, the cause must be just.”  Just war principles depend on the application of the laws of war.  After all, “A just cause can be undone if it is pursued in unjust ways.”[30]  Commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan understood this, but bad strategy undermined the efforts.[31]  Conditions improved under Petraeus: “General Petraeus’ strategy emphasized protection of the population, more discretionary use of force, and heavy emphasis on human rights.”[32]  These ideals echoed the U.S. counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine, revised just two years earlier, signed under Petraeus’ hand.[33]  In the end, “[u]nder the new strategy implemented by Petraeus, Iraqi civilian deaths dropped dramatically.”[34]  Also, “Iraqi Special Forces trained by USSOF stood out as the most capable Iraqi armed force.”[35]


So, in Nigeria, “One particular area in which USSOF could be useful is in providing training and helping security forces to be more precise in their use of force, as [former Commander, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM)] General [Carter] Ham proposed.”[36]  But in Afghanistan so too in Nigeria: the Leahy laws[37] present problems.  Human rights violations—including excessive use of force and torture—have constrained U.S. monetary and military aid to Nigeria.[38]  Meanwhile, Malians have continued the fight against regional insurgencies.  Last October, former Malian Defense Chief of Staff General Mahamane Touré spoke to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies on Mali’s COIN strategy.[39]  Among his remarks, General Touré emphasized the importance of “the need for senior leaders and commanders to help the rank and file understand that protecting civilians is the key to success.”  He also emphasized that “[COIN] by nature requires the use of lightly armed and highly mobile units.”  But here, USSOF+ law = good strategy is a gross oversimplification.  There is a point of fact from recent history in Mali that represents a profound strategic challenge for USSOF and U.S. national interests.  In the coup’s melee, “members of the elite army units trained by USSOF reportedly [ ] defected to Islamic extremists operating in the north of the country.”[40]  One is left to wonder whether these men, or some of them, were the same who carried out the Niger ambush.  Worse than that, as the Malian military embarked on its COIN campaign (backed by French forces), its men reportedly committed reprisals and summary executions against civilians.[41]


As for rule of law, in Afghanistan President Obama had turned word into deed by way of Brigadier General Mark Martins’ Rule of Law Field Force-Afghanistan, with Rosa Brooks in the civilian lead.[42]  Why was a rule of law program under the DoD (vice Justice or State)?  One possible reason: “rule of law is the West’s alternative to jihadist terrorism.”[43]  The problem is, “[r]ule of law is an abstraction, a term that is easy to employ in rhetoric, but hard to measure in result.”[44]  Worse, “In truth, the rule of law is a complex, fragile, and to some extent inherently unrealizable goal.  Nonetheless, projects that are self-conscious about the nuances and paradoxes of the rule of law are much more likely to be successful.”[45]  On Brooks’ account, working within Afghanistan’s legal system “posed even steeper challenges than Iraq.”[46]  The 2017 NSS strategy toward Africa reiterates the rule of law as a priority, but does not offer clear ways for success.  These complications and others demand a clearer national strategy for the region.


In Closing: Thoughts on Grand Strategy


In Obama’s defense, his was the duty to work within the pressures of the then-current political situation.[47]  To borrow a phrase used in military parlance, this reality is inherent in the Commander-in-Chief’s burden of command.  It is fundamental and indispensable to the U.S. constitutional framework.  In fact, Brooks notes in Foreign Policy that “This isn’t a problem specific to the Obama administration, or to the White House; other administrations and other executive-branch agencies are just as bad.”  A natural consequence is that a grand strategy needs popular support to succeed.[48]  After all, “politics and grand strategy are matters of the practicable.”[49]  This is one among several reasons why the use of USSOF is appropriate.  The use of SOF tends to be more politically palatable than the use of conventional forces.[50]


Debates continue as to whether the United States can sustain a grand strategy at all.  Changes in administration, together with the political, bureaucratic processes demanded of a democratic republic heighten complications in developing a lasting national strategy.[51]  Not least for this reason then, “one must think of grand strategy in terms of an idiosyncratic process rather than a specific, clearly thought-through approach to the world.  When successful, it almost invariably involves the choices and guiding hands of individuals.”[52]  For this reason—as a passing note—merit remains in the grand-strategy-as-a-people-process approach of the Eisenhower model.[53]  In any case though, as with Powell and Petraeus (and Martins, Mattis, and McMaster) fighting wars lawfully depends on commanders.  And commanders depend on strategy.[54]  With Mattis as Defense Secretary and McMaster as National Security Advisor, the United States has the leadership for a clearer strategy for the Sahel that facilitates right action.




The 2017 NSS allows undue risk.  A parsing of the NSS strategy toward Africa helps make the point: the NSS defers to ends and means and leaves ways unclear.  The Lykke model of military strategy (ways to apply means to ends) is brilliant in its simplicity.  But this model fails as a construct of national strategy.  With ways left unclear, risk remains in just how national means are applied to regional ends (Part I).  And nowhere are these complications more profound than in the AFRICOM area of operations, particularly in the Sahel (Part II).  The inherent difficulties in the Sahel, and those in the use of USSOF and the application of law, demand a clearer national strategy (Part III).  The United States’ continued provision of support of efforts throughout the Sahel region (and the world, to be sure) present current strategic challenges.  But, with worn-thin resources and a war weary electorate, it remains to be seen whether the United States will make Mali, Nigeria, and the Sahel region anything more than peripheral to its strategic and national security interests.  Still, it is a mistake to ignore the region.  To the national security staff: give AFRICOM and SOCOM a clearer strategy for the Sahel.


End Notes


[1] Barbara Starr, Niger ambush investigation focuses on key questions, CNN, December 7, 2017.

[2] See the NSS, p. 26.

[3] Or “grand strategy.”  Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1-1, Warfighting, p. 39.

[4] Also, ends of regional strategy constitute ways of national strategy toward a given region.

[5] Jeffrey W. Meiser, Ends + Ways + Means = (Bad) Strategy, Parameters 46(4), Winter 2016-17.

[6] Rosa Brooks, Obama Needs a Grand Strategy, Foreign Policy, January 23, 2012.

[7] Thomas J. Henriksen, Afghanistan, Counterinsurgency, and the Indirect Approach, Joint Special Operations University (JSOU) Report 10-3, April 2010, page 1.   

[8] According to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), “inherent resolve” is “intended to reflect the unwavering resolve and deep commitment of the U.S. and partner nations in the region and around the globe to eliminate the terrorist group ISIL and the threat they pose to Iraq, the region and the wider international community.  It also symbolizes the willingness and dedication of coalition members to work closely with our friends in the region and apply all available dimensions of national power necessary… to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.”

[9] Despite the rhetoric of “the new way” here, the new way of war after 2003 is one thing; the paradigm shift (from counterterrorism to something closer to counterinsurgency) of the new way of war in 2010 is another.

[10] This new way of war saw its inaugural push when the newly deployed Marines moved through Marjah in 2010.

[11] Antulio J. Echevarria II, Toward an American Way of War, Strategic Studies Institute, 2004, p. 1.

[12] After all, there are those that disagree.  Consider H. Richard Yarger’s article, Toward a Theory of Strategy: Art Lykke and the Army War College Strategy Model.  Yarger argues: “Art Lykke’s theory of strategy provides the basis for clearly articulating and objectively evaluating any strategy.”

[13] Nicholas De Gregorio, Why Africa Matters: A Plea for Proactive Strategy in the Trans-Sahel, Marine Corps Gazette, October 2012. 

[14] Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt, U.S. Sees Hazy Threat from Mali Militants, New York Times, January 2013. 

[15] James J.F. Forest, Confronting the Terrorism of Boko Haram in Nigeria, JSOU Report 12-5, May 2012, p. 114.

[16] Alexander Smith, Nigeria’s Boko Haram violence now comparable to ISIS in Iraq, NBC News, 2014.

[17] It is also remarkable that Atallah emphasized the need for “full spectrum SOF operations.”

[18] Forest, p. 114.

[19] In his book Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World (2017), political scientist Ian Bremmer offers points against engagement (p. 100), and counterpoints in favor (pp. 148-149), each equally defensible.  Also, the civil-military debate is most vigorous with respect to U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) (see Brooks, How Everything Became War…, pp. 83-86; see also Dave Clemente, Africom: Soft Power Warriors, The World Today, January 2011).  Reliance on covert action in the region is not the answer (Jennifer D. Kibbe, Covert Action, Pentagon Style, in The Oxford Handbook of National Security Intelligence, p. 581). 

[20] First, President Trump hired none other than Mr. Atallah as the Senior Director for African Affairs, but then fired him within a matter of months (Reed Kramer, Third Trump Try to Fill Senior Africa Post, AllAfrica, July 2017).  Another candidate was vetted, then another.  The administration’s third pick for the post started in the job months later.  Consider also the case of Chad.  After the United States announced last September that it would ban immigrants from certain countries, including Chad, Chad withdrew its 2,000 troops from the Sahel’s counterterror coalition  (Alexander Thurston, America Should Beware a Chadian Military Scorned, Foreign Policy, October 2017).  This has a profound effect on the coalition’s capability to counter Boko Haram, AQIM, and other violent extremist organizations there.  No doubt the fallout from the travel ban has made things worse in the eyes of U.S. allies and coalition partners.  A grand strategy for the region would signal commitment and reaffirm partnering for regional security as a serious priority.  This is especially important for U.S. allies in Europe, namely Britain, France, and the European Union (EU).  Lest the United States forget, “The European venture into counter-terror war began in the Sahel” after the Mali coup and the French intervention (Anthony Dworkin, The New Western Counter-Terror Wars: Toward US-European Convergence?, Just Security, November 2016).  And the region remains relevant to U.S. allies in the EU, not least because of the mass exodus of migrants from Mali, Niger, and Nigeria (see Ty McCormick, Highway through Hell, Foreign Policy, September/October 2017, p. 36; see also Alissa de Carbonnel and Robin Emmott, EU to double funding for military force in west Africa’s Sahel region, Reuters, February 2018).    Finally, on the wayward nature of recent U.S. policy toward the Sahel, see Karoun Demirjian, U.S. will expand counterterrorism focus in Africa, Mattis tells senators, Washington Post, October 20, 2017; and Tara Copp, Terrorism challenges in Africa take back seat in U.S. to other threats, Military Times, February 13, 2018.

[21] See Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor, Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq (2006), p. 32.

[22] Henriksen, p. 1.

[23] See DoD Report to Congress, Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan, June 2017.

[24] See Patrick J. Paterson, Training Surrogate Forces in International Humanitarian Law: Lessons from Peru, Colombia, El Salvador, and Iraq, JSOU Report 16-9, 2016, p. 79.

[25] For Mali, see Lydia Polgreen Mali Army, Riding U.S. Hopes, Is Proving No Match for Militants, New York Times, January 2013; for Nigeria, see “Agencies,” Nigeria sentences soldiers to death for refusing to fight Islamists, The Telegraph, December 2014.  This fact is in no small part a result of at least one hundred years’ history.  After World War I, the Peace Conference of Versailles in 1919 divided most of Africa into French and British mandate zones (see Sir Charles Lucas, The Partition and Colonization of Africa, 1932).  League of Nations mandates included “express provisions against the militarizing of the natives” (Carter G. Woodson, The African Background Outlined, 1936, p. 144).  The postcolonial period after 1960 presented similar problems: “Many of the countries were not ready for self-governance” (Richard Haass, A World in Disarray, p. 71).

[26] Marine Corps Warfighting Publication (MCWP) 3-05, Marine Corps Special Operations, p. 2-8.

[27] Always Faithful, Always Forward: The Forging of a Special Operations Marine, p. xxv.

[28] MCWP, p. 2-7.

[29] See generally Brian S. Petit, Going Big by Getting Small: The Application of Operational Art by Special Operations in Phase Zero (2013).  As SOCOM Commander General Thomas said last May before the Senate Armed Services Committee, “[SOCOM] is not a panacea.”  See also Sean D. Naylor, Will Trump Break the Special Forces?, The Atlantic, December 27, 2016; and Micah Zenko, Donald Trump is Pushing America’s Special Forces Past the Breaking Point, Foreign Policy, August 1, 2017.

[30] Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, p. vxii.

[31] For example, just before the Iraq invasion of 2003, the Commanding General of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF)—General Jim Mattis—spoke plainly to his Marines on the rules of engagement (see James E. Baker, In the Common Defense: National Security Law for Perilous Times, p. 220).  Matters in Iraq were further complicated by the fact that “there was no plan of any sort: no strategy, no mission statement, no criteria or benchmarks for how to measure, or even define success or failure” (Paterson, p. 80). 

[32] Paterson, p. 83. 

[33] Baker, p. 221.

[34] Paterson, p. 84.

[35] Paterson, p. 86.

[36] Forest, p. 114.

[37] Lauren Ploch Blanchard, Human Rights Vetting: Nigeria and Beyond, Statement Before the House Foreign Affairs Committee Subcommittee on Africa, Congressional Research Service, July 2014, p. 2.

[38] Blanchard, p. 18.

[39] The Lion’s Head and Tail: A Discussion on Countering Insurgencies with General Mahamane Touré.

[40] Paterson, p. 9.

[41] Polgreen.

[42] Rosa Brooks, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything (2017), p. 80.

[43] Baker, pp. 308-309.

[44] Baker, p. 22.

[45] Jane Stromseth, David Wippman, and Rosa Brooks, Can Might Make Rights? Building the Rule of Law After Military Interventions, p. 57.

[46] By 2011, General McMaster (then Commander of Combined Joint Task Force Shafafiyat, NATO International Security Assistance Force) noted that “[lawyers] play a significant role in contemporary operations,” and that “[t]here is so much we have taken on in terms of assistance, training host nation security forces, rule of law missions, detention operations, and working within an indigenous law system that relies upon legal expertise.” 

[47] See Stephen Biddle, War by Other Means, Foreign Policy, September 2012.

[48] For example, as Biddle notes, “U.S. grand strategy in World War II was powerfully shaped by the president’s need to sustain popular support at home.” 

[49] Williamson Murray, Thoughts on grand strategy, in The Shaping of Grand Strategy, p. 10, n. 31.

[50] See Paterson, p. 7.

[51] R. Craig Nation, U.S. Army War College Guide to National Security Issues, p. 153.

[52] Murray, p. 9.  Interestingly, Murray and Baker each has spoken of grand strategy and law respectively as being a “human endeavor.”  Murray, p. 9; Baker, p. 309.

[53] See Raymond Millen, Cultivating Strategic Thinking: The Eisenhower Model.

[54] “Military strategy, derived from national policy and strategy informed by doctrine, provides a framework for conducting operations.”  (JP 3-0, p. I-3) 

About the Author(s)

T. Nelson Collier is a former active duty Marine officer, a current Marine Forces Reserve officer, and a lawyer for veterans' rights.  He is a specialist in the law of military operations and the law of war, and has earned a specialist’s degree in National Security Law from Georgetown University Law Center.  He has also developed an interest in issues concerning the security environment of the African continent, most notably the Sahel and the Maghreb.  His research interests include law of war, special operations forces, history, use of force, issues affecting veterans, and the practical applications of moral and political philosophy.